“Rio Arriba County will no longer honor any travel requests to future NetRoots Nation conferences,” county manager Tomás Cámpos wrote in a letter to the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office.
In late May, New Mexico Watchdog discovered Rio Arriba County commissioners approved expenses for county employees Lauren Reichelt and Erika Martinez to attend the four-day NetRoots Nation conference at a cost of about $2,500. The conference was held in June in San Jose, Calif.
Established by The Daily Kos, a well-known liberal blog, the NetRoots Nation convention bills itself as “one of the most powerful political events of the year,” featuring “some of the brightest minds in progressive politics.”
“We didn’t think of it as partisan or non-partisan,” Commissioner Alfredo Montoya told New Mexico Watchdog on May 29. “It was presented to us as a way to get information out to the public, to communicate better with the public. That’s how it was presented to us.”
News of the decision sparked protest among many county residents, with the local newspaper, The Rio Grande Sun, publishing scores of letters from angry readers and writing a blistering editorial.
Reichelt and Martinez attended the convention anyway.Two county residents — Debra Anderson and Jose Candia — sent letters to the Attorney General’s Office calling for an investigation into whether the trip violated the state’s Governmental Conduct Act.
“We determined that NetRoots Nation had two tracks in the conference,” Pederson told New Mexico Watchdog, “One, indeed, is a partisan political practice … But another is a good government track, for lack of a better term.”
Anderson isn’t buying it, saying the event is used as a way to promote the Democratic Party in the county.
“It’s a political machine and it’s been that way here for years,” Anderson said.
According to the county clerk, Rio Arriba County has a 77.7-10.8 percent edge in Democratic Party versus Republican Party registration.
Rio Arriba County’s director for Health and Human Services, Reichelt earlier this year was named vice chair of the county’s Democratic Party and blogs on the DailyKos site.
Martinez was the county’s public information officer at the time of the convention. She has since left and taken a job as a communications officer for the state Senate Democrats.
The NetRoots convention’s agenda showed 195 events. While some have titles such as “Digital Campaigns on a Budget,” other offerings included “How to Win Elections with Data-driven Field Operations” and “Legitimate Tape: Using Republicans’ Own Words to Shut that Whole Thing Down.”
Pederson asked the county to quiz Reichelt and Martinez about what sessions they attended at the convention. Cámpos responded with a list that included seminars with titles such as “All Things Medicaid,” “Women on the Run,” “Implementing the Affordable Care Act,” “Climate Change: Congressional Leaders, Allies on the Path Ahead,” and “Digital Campaigns on a Budget.”
“In these situations, you need to be more careful about what you do, especially when it involves public employees and public money,” Pederson told New Mexico Watchdog.
But Anderson is still angry.
“There is not one thing about this convention that is not political,” she said. “I think they’ve been doing this for years.”
In our story in May, Reichelt said this year’s convention marked the fourth straight year she has attended NetRoots Nation. She went by herself in 2010, was accompanied by three other county employees in 2011 and was joined by Martinez in 2012. Each year, Reichelt said, the county, north of Santa Fe, picked up the expenses.
“It isn’t for the political stuff,” Reichelt said. “It’s the very best conference for using social media, for working with communities.”
“If you want to help the county, help the county, don’t use it as a political front,” Anderson said and accused the Attorney General’s Office — headed by Democrat Gary King — of protecting political allies.
“That’s not true,” Pederson said. “This criticism comes with the territory. That’s the last thing on anyone’s mind here … We try to be scrupulously neutral.”
Read the entire article and see the documents from the AG (aspiring governor– not attorney general) here.